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Wait Until They're Ready

Balancing our own worries while honoring the learning pace of our children.

Children will learn when they are ready. This was a mantra from my Waldorf training that “felt” right in theory, but has been more difficult than I realized it would be in practice. When I found myself confronted with my 8 year old daughter who could barely read and showed little interest, or the same daughter who couldn’t spell at 10, or my son who, after years of trying, still had not truly memorized even the simplest times faith wavered, resulting in impulse buys like getting a new reading curriculum, more math manipulatives, and flash cards. Luckily, despite the impulse to go all in on the areas where my kids are “behind”, what usually happens is I plan to do it, start to do it, and then quickly feel their resistance. It’s like a brick wall, and it wakes me up. I remember the “children will learn when they are ready” wisdom. I do some research. I call my mom, a wise retired teacher, and she assures me that this is true and I have nothing to worry about. I let it go. The happy ending to each of these worry worm-holes is that one by one I have crossed these academic worries off the list.

When I say, “it wakes me up”, that really is what it feels like. We can lose track of the big picture of homeschooling, the grander purpose, when we get mired in the academic aspect of the endeavor. Most homeschoolers I know, who have been at it awhile, seem clear that the relationship is far more important that any grade level benchmark the state may throw at them. When we blindly choose to forge ahead with curriculum despite heavy resistance, it can make homeschooling feel close to impossible and can feel damaging to our relationship with our kids. The homeschool relationship requires that our children feel seen, and safe, and supported. There is no academic skill that is so important that it can’t be set aside for awhile. Taking breaks, changing up the plans, being flexible...these are homeschooling superpowers that we can all harness.

While it isn’t always possible to guess the perfect moment to introduce a new skill, it is important not to assume that benchmarks or curriculums for your child’s age are right for your child, and not to assume that if you start into something that there is no turning back. When I introduce something prematurely, the restlessness and resistance I see at our table is palpable. Diving into something before its time, is not only no fun for all involved, but no useful learning occurs anyway. The trick is to be aware and catch it early, to separate our adult assumptions and expectations from what the child in front of us is truly ready for.

Having the flexibility to wait and not rush things is one of the great gifts of homeschooling, but this can be hard for homeschooling parents like me, who are really into planning. Our beautiful plans cannot be guaranteed to hit the sweet spot. I love to plan, and I may have written this in another post but I’ll say it again: “plans shmans” is my fallback mantra. I love to research and buy curriculums, check out stacks of library books, and plan out learning blocks, BUT I have to also be ready to change or abandon them completely, because if things aren’t feeling yummy and interesting, I know it won’t be worth our energy.

Waiting until my kids are ready for something has made “teaching” sometimes surprisingly easy. Last year I remember thinking it was time to introduce long-division, and I assumed it was going to be a whole learning block. I set aside 4 weeks for it. On the first day, we covered the basics, and it went smoothly, but I thought nothing of it, assuming it would take awhile to really lock in the concept and that we would need to follow up this new academic skill with weeks of practice. The next day I gave them a few problems to see what they had retained, and they both had it down. After a few days, I increased the difficulty, and it became clear that I now had an unplanned month ahead of us. My fourth grade homeschool curriculums all said they needed more time, but they really didn’t and it would have been a waste of their time to follow the curriculum.

So how will you know if they are ready? It will usually be pretty clear. Just look at them. Are they curious? Then they are probably ready. Are they disinterested? Stressed out? Resistant? Then do yourselves a favor, and consider setting it aside for the moment.

This just came up again recently for us with multiplication tables (I wrote more on how we approached multiplication memorization here) because I truly thought my son would never memorize them. Many third grade curriculums I’ve seen say that the goal is to have all the multiplication tables memorized by the end of the school year. Reading that expectation and remembering memorizing them myself, it seemed doable. In practice though, it was a brick wall. We worked on it, and I sought out creative ways to approach it when the first efforts weren’t working, but at some point we just moved on. I had to come to peace with him using his math tricks and hundreds charts basic multiplication, and I did. But recently, as I watched my now almost 12-year-old skip-count while he worked with finding least common denominators, I asked him if he wanted to try memorizing the tables again, and he said “Yes.” We came up with a doable plan to just tackle one table at a time using flash cards and an incentive (ice cream!). The results have blown my mind. It’s actually sticking. And we are eating ice cream every week :) There was no magic lesson that brought it all home for him. I tried them all. It was just that for whatever reason he was not ready. Now he is.

My daughter has never struggled with math but has always had difficulty with spelling, and we all came to terms with that, assuming that she would always need to get help editing. I did not expect this would ever change, and honestly didn’t care much (our kids don’t have to learn it all and spelling in this day and age is an easy one to let go of). But lo and behold, the pandemic year resulted in more computer usage for us, and the magic of spell check (showing her what was misspelled and giving her choice was very helpful for her) worked to the point where I honestly think she has become a competent speller. It feels miraculous, but it really is not. It’s so easy to lose sight of child development and how each of our children are unique and cannot be held to generalized standards.

Most difficult for me was coming to peace with “late” reading. It’s something our skeptical friends and relatives can hold over our heads as an example that this alternative approach to education is not working. This can be understandable, since most of our own educational experiences rewarded precociousness, and being an early reader was intrinsically “better” than the opposite. I’m grateful that my Waldorf teacher training blew up this concept, but it was still a struggle to truly believe until I personally witnessed this phenomenon: If you read rich, wonderful stories aloud to your children, and help them when they are curious, they will read when they are ready.

There were some silver linings to my daughter being a late reader, and finding them helped me check my worries around it. I think being a later reader extended my daughter’s time in the dreamy childhood place where “the world is good”. She was less aware of newspaper headlines and billboards than her brother. Later reading also resulted in almost a decade of cozy read-alouds with my kids. I think they are better listeners now because of how much time we spent reading aloud together, and they love to listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Also, read-alouds are usually at a higher vocabulary level than most books for young readers, so when my daughter did start reading on her own, she was not intimidated by “harder” books.

I’m inspired by the idea that there are homeschooling parents who do not worry about their children’s learning. I know they exist because I’ve seen their powerful posts on social media, but honestly, I’ve never met one. Most of the homeschoolers I know strive to honor the learning pace of their child, but worry is always present on some level. That’s kind of what we parents do, right? In my experience, we all need the occasional reminders to separate our own worries from what is happening right in front of us, to separate our egos from what our children need, and to appreciate the privilege that we homeschoolers have: to be able to truly wait until they are ready.


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